Spring in New England brings many welcomed changes: budding flowers, longer days, warmer weather, and harbor seal pup season! Harbor seals live on the east and west coasts of the US, as well as around Europe and Asia. Pupping season varies among regions, but New England harbor seals give birth between May and early June. With more people frequenting beaches during this time period, human interaction with seal pups on beaches is more likely. The sight of a lone pup can cause beachgoers to believe the pup has been abandoned or sick, and is in need of help. Although many are well-intentioned, these interactions can be harmful to both the seal pup and humans involved. So what do you need to know before approaching a pup this harbor seal pup season?
As semi-aquatic animals, seals spend time both on land and in the water. Seals will leave the water for a beach or rocks, a behavior called “hauling out”, to regulate body temperature, rest, molt, evade predators, give birth, and raise young.
In fact, mothers will often will leave their pups hauled out for short periods of time while hunting in the water. Although these pups may appear abandoned, it’s crucial that they are not approached by humans or dogs, as this may cause the mother to not return to her pup. Premature maternal separation can be detrimental to a pup’s health, as they require 4-6 weeks of nursing before eating fish on their own. It’s also important to remember that although seal pups can appear adorable, they will defend themselves if they feel threatened; zoonotic diseases and bacteria can be transferred to humans or dogs from seal bites. Even more, seals are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, meaning it’s prohibited to harass, touch, or collect them without authorization. Given this information, what should you do if you see a seal pup hauled out?
Give the pup plenty of space - at least 150 feet (50 yards) is recommended - and keep dogs on a leash. If you’re taking a photograph and don’t need to zoom to get a good look, you’re too close!
Do not attempt to move or push the seal back into the water. Remember, hauling out is a normal seal behavior and does not necessarily mean they need help!
. If you think the seal may need medical assistance (it may look flat, lethargic, injured, or thin) keep your distance and contact your local stranding organization (see below for more details), providing information about the animal’s appearance, behavior, and location! Depending on the seal’s condition, the organization may observe them for 24 hours to know whether they have been abandoned. If the pup’s condition declines and the mother does not return, the organization may rescue the pup and bring it to a rehabilitation center for further evaluation and care.
If other beachgoers attempt to approach the pup, share what you know to protect the seal and others!